In the Tobacco Factory’s production of Richard II, the large court enters and bows as Richard (John Heffernan) unpicks the dispute between Bullingbrooke (Matthew Thomas) and Mowbray (Paul Currier). The court remains so until Heffernan, with an apologetic wave of his hand—forgetful of their presence—releases them from their etiquette. The gesture indicates at once a king with impressive personal bearing but one also removed from the needs and desires of his subjects. Under Andrew Hilton’s smart direction, the Tobacco Factory’s Richard II creates a world of such small gestures, and presents compelling, if at times uneven, drama.
The production is traditional in costuming, and Elizabeth Purnell’s sound design reinforces a medieval setting. Set and costume designer Harriet de Winton suggests a world through a few choice pieces—a wooden throne, stained-glass doors. The Tobacco Factory theatre is in the round, with the action unfolding in a longish rectangle surrounded by a perimeter of audience.
Hefferman as Richard is, simply, splendid. De Winton’s costume for Richard is a sumptuous, fitted to the torso and then opening up into a flowing robe. Hefferman, trotting up and down stairs, often folds up the robe into his hands, its sweep too great for management—a perfect statement of his character. He inhabits the robe with a languid lion-like command. We see very little of the Richard that so many unite to oppose. It is only as he visits the dying John of Gaunt (Benjamin Whitrow) that we glimpse a harsh and bitter edge to his character. Gaunt’s death is dismissed with a pert “So much for that” upon which Richard launches into a seizure of Gaunt’s lands. With calm superiority, Heffernan portrays a king so convinced of his own regalness that he has become separated from a sense of compassion. He lacks sympathy—not out of intended malice, but out of breeding. Which makes his impending deposition strikingly engaging. Heffernan masterfully unrolls Richard’s sense of self. Returning to England, he lies prostrate on the ground, willing the soil and nature itself to defend his right to the throne. Upon learning further news of treason, he sits, Christ-like in his robes, and delivers a sermon-like disquisition on the crown and cares of kingship. Heffernan throughout his entire performance never loses a center—he commands in stillness, and every gesture is well-conceived.
In a play with so few women, Ffion Jolly as the Queen and Julia Hills as the Duchess of Gloucester (and doubling as Duchess of York) make strong impressions with their limited stage time. Hills as the widowed Duchess of Gloucester delivers sharp and fiery condemnation, and later plays the fine balance between humor and horror as the Duchess of York.
But in a play with several strong performances, some choices are too safe and restrained. Thomas’s Bullingbrooke seems at times only a mildly agitated stream, and the Bullingbrooke-Mowbray dispute lacks a visceral quality. There is barely a single pass of the sword before Richard stops their fight. We are given almost no insight into Bullingbroke’s political machinations—the juxtaposition with Richard’s deep characterization falls flat.
Richard II at the Tobacco Factory is a strong production, reveling in some of Shakespeare’s most vibrant and intellectually stimulating verse. Heffernan’s pitch-perfect voice and understanding of his character is gripping, from the moment he off-handedly dismisses the court to his sudden and bloody end.